Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark's History by Charles Bernstein
Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark's History by Charles Bernstein
Hello, my name is Michael Anthony and I have in my hand a cashier's check for one million dollars made out in your name. There are no conditions on the use of this money. You can spend it any way you want, even give some to the Memorial Art Gallery, which needs your support, but you know that. Donations to the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo are also welcome, and for donations of $500 or more we will include you or your loved ones in our poems, or, if you prefer, we can compose more poems relating to this painting or other paintings in the collection. —But hold on a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. There is one condition on the million: you are not allowed to reveal the name of the benefactor. If I tell you his name, I’m counting on you to keep it to yourself. Anyway, maybe you’ve already guessed that it’s John Beresford Tipton. You’d know the name if you watched The Millionaire on TV in the 1950s. (I don’t think the show’s made it yet to “Nick at Night” or “TV Land,” but then I don’t follow their programming that closely. But I’m sure not getting residuals, that money dried up a long time ago.) Of course a million isn’t what it used to be, but what is? Anyway, you know, enough about me. You didn’t invite me here to talk about myself, well you didn’t invite me here at all. So let’s get on to the subject at hand, because we haven’t got all day. We see before us Bernard Duvivier’s Cleopatra. —Hey, Jimmy! Get up from the bench, take the headphones off, and come over here or you won’t be going to the roller rink later! (Excuse me, I hope it won’t be necessary to interrupt this poem again, so everybody pay attention.) Cleopatra is date 1789, the year of the French Revolution, so we must first consider how this painting relates to the momentous events of that fateful year, for a painting is never just about its ostensive subject but always contains within it another, often unseen, often contradictory, subject, played out in its form or figured in its imagery. In this case, we must assume some historically specific reference, some sign of the revolution taking place outside the artist’s studio. And yet, it’s hard to see what that would be. Could it be that Anthony and Cleopatra in some way stand for characters from the contemporary historical drama of 1789? Cleopatra is no Marie Antoinette, I can tell you that, and Antony, well he’s no Louis XVI, as I am sure you would agree if you knew Louis like I know Louis—O! What a guy! I mean human character is something I specialize in. And I know Louis and Marie, not just the cardboard images out of books but the real flesh and blood people. Just last week, Louis, Marie, and I had a knockout lunch with Jack Tipton at Montrachet—the frogs legs were delicious, crisp as a Lay’s potato chip and coated with a dazzling avocado meringue sauce. And the patisserie was out-of-this-world. “Let us eat ze cake,” Louis joked, always the wise guy, but you should have seen the look on Marie’s face: she was not amused. It was nice of Tippy to pick up the check as the French royals have been having a hard time the past couple of hundred years. I mean whether you agree with them or not, you’ve got to respect the tradition they represent. No, if we are to look for allegory in this painting, we have to think of something different, something more off the mark. Perhaps the symbolic potential of middle-aged lovers defying society? Cleopatra and Antony look very youthful for 39 and 53—and this is way before vitamin supplements, too. But, let’s face it, this is no Citizen Cleo taking up arms against the old order in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Whatever virtues the pair may have, democracy is no part of them. Fraternization maybe, but that’s it. Duvivier shows Cleopatra with a knife, ready to end this mortal coil and join her beloved in that better place just outside the frame. This is not a revolutionary gesture but rather an inwardly directed act of violence, suggesting severe depression at the acute loss of a loved one in a person without the emotional resources to go through the grieving process and end up a stronger, healthier, more self-empowered individual. Such images of self-directed violence have been shown, time and again, to have a harmful effect on viewers, especially a painting like this, which romanticizes suicide. Paintings with this type of subject matter should be restricted to patrons over 30 who can demonstrate their emotional maturity; my only reservation about this course of action is that it would only draw more attention to this reprehensible glorification of self-slaughter. —I hope you will allow me to indulge in a personal note here. The shame of Mark’s suicide has haunted the Antony family for generations, so much so that when emigrating from Italy in the 1880s, my parents changed the spelling of our name, adding and “h” for our missing honor. And, speaking of families, what of Mark’s first family—Octavia and the children? Sure Queen Cleopatra is sad, but what about them? I wouldn’t waste all your tears on Cleo. Don’t get me wrong, I understand what it’s like to be so low you think down is up. After our show passed on—I mean was canceled, I still have a hard time saying that word—I fell into a downward spiral until I hit bottom at a dive called At Our Place on the Bowery. That’s where I met Louis, who always wore a green ribbon around his neck, although he would never talk about it. Tippy tried to do what he could, offered to cover my stay at the Betty Ford clinic, but I had too much pride to accept his offer. Eventually I landed a job as research assistant to a young scholar associated with UB’s Poetics Program, who specialized in poems about paintings and was at the time working on French neo-Classicism à la Jacques Louis David. Anyway, and correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t Cleopatra do herself in with an asp shortly after the scene depicted in this painting? When she realized that the hundreds-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty would come to an end and Rome would rule Egypt? When push comes to shove, it wasn’t romance that was on the Queen’s mind, but the imminent political catastrophe for her country. Maybe that event was to be the subject of a sequel, ready to go into production if this painting hit big box office. Anyway, not to change the subject, but, and check this out—don’t you think Antony looks more like he was caught in flagrante delicto than that he’s dead? I guess that’s poetic license (how do you apply for one of those?). Alas, none of us brings a blank slate, a tabula rasa, an unprejudiced gaze, to the reception of such an historically charged subject. For example, many contemporary viewers will have foremost in their minds the comparison between the star-crossed lovers in this painting and their representation in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 film version of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with Rex (“Dr. Doolittle”) Harrison as Julie Caesar. (Many people think of Julie only as a take-charge military commander and forget that he was the inspiration for that great vocal standard, “Roman Nights of an Egyptian Queen [Cleo’s Song]” —“You came, you saw, you conquered me.”) I cannot emphasize enough that in order to properly understand Duvivier’s painting on its own terms, it is necessary to clear the mind of all such overlaid images. Try to put yourself in the position of the first viewers of this painting, who knew nothing of Liz and Dick’s shenanigans in Rome, nor of the trials of Eddie Fisher. Such contemporary images put a cloud between us and this painting, a cloud that we can only hope to vaporize by rigorous analysis both of the painting itself and the historical reality of that August day, 30 years before the start of the first millennium, when people were just beginning to face the issues around Y-zero-K (ignition, lift-off). Let us then return to this painting, with a renewed commitment to plumb its depth, scale its heights, assay its thematics. No consideration of this work would be anything but superficial if it considered only the main actors in the unfolding drama and overlooked the supporting cast. Let us then turn our attention to Faith, Hope, and Larry—the threesome just behind the stiff. Now Faith, Faith looks like she’s got Excedrin headache #49, if not a migraine (but this was before product placements and let me emphasize that there are only minimal fees being paid for brand name references in this poem). Hope seems to be rehearsing for a Martha Graham revival. And Larry—the guy in the lower right hand corner—it looks like he’s trying out an early version of aerobics—“Get that knee up, all the way up. Stretch those arms.” But here’s the weirdest thing: Larry, let’s call him Larry, bears an uncanny resemblance to John Beresford Tipton. I mean Jack Tipton always wore a suit, but the guy in the picture has the same nose, the same eyes, the same build. I mean explain that. But I see I am letting the main emotional action of the painting get away from me: you know, the deep gaze being exchanged by the Queen and the Roman guard Proculeius (whose name we now associate primarily with a common skin rash exacerbated by oil paint). I mean, first Julius Caesar, then ‘Tony, and now...? After all, who could resist a man in a red dress wearing a helmet bedecked with a long red feather? Or would you call that a plume? I’d call it a feather but then what do I know? I’ve never even been to Egypt and I only took one summer of Latin when I was in high school. “Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon.” You can say that double for Mark Anthony. And while we are on the subject, make mine a double, too, with a twist. That’s right, double or nothing, twist and shout, but be home by 11. Now, before we move on to the next painting, I want you all to notice that Proculeius’s head accessories are so much more appealing than the rubberbanded pony tail and baseball cap now standard for balding men of my generation—no offense intended to you, sir, yes you, looking away, with the bib overalls—but then perhaps Proculeius has one of those pony tails tucked away under his helmet. (Perhaps an x-ray of the painting is in order.) And, hey, what’s that? A miniature dragon under the plumage? That’s so cool. Anyway, one thing’s for sure, Cleopatra’s sandals are still very chic.
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